The Rise of a World Without Meaning

“Imagination has got to come back in. But that’s dangerous and frightening.”

“Can’t Get You Out of My Head” grew out of Curtis’s response to the populist insurgencies of 2016. Curtis was struck by the fury of mainstream liberals and their simultaneous lack of a meaningful vision of the future that might counter the visceral appeal of nationalism and xenophobia. “Those who were against all that didn’t really seem to have an alternative,” he said.

Curtis came to perceive a mindset among ruling élites of all stripes—among the American political establishment, in Russia and China, at think tanks and the European Union, international banks and tech companies—that was an attempt to manage the world without transforming it. After the violence and social experiments of the twentieth century, it made sense to give up on grand ideologies, but the result is that we live in societies without narrative coherence, with old myths boiling up. “There isn’t a big story,” Curtis said. “And that’s true in China as much as it is here. Everyone’s just trying to manage the now and desperately hold it stable, almost like in a permanent present, and not step into the future. And I don’t think that will last very long. . . . Because if you’ve got a story about where you’re going, when catastrophes like 9/11 or covid or the banking crisis hit, they allow you to put them—even though they’re frightening—to put them into a sense of proportion. If you don’t have a story about where you’re going, they seem like terrifying random acts from another universe.” In conversation, Curtis sometimes speaks faster and faster, like the movie version of a math whiz, covering a blackboard in equations until he arrives, non-triumphantly but nonetheless definitively, at an answer. Each of his projects is anchored by a single, provocative idea, and the claim of his new series is that we have become unable to imagine the future—we are citizens of an eternal present stilled by dubious technology, hollow politicians, and catastrophic self-doubt.

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